Before we get to Saturday’s action from Phish’s gig at Northerly Island in Chicago, let’s briefly consider, “well, how did we get here?” The “here” is a three-set show, a structure typically reserved only for Phish festivals, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve performances. The “how” was Friday’s show that was abruptly halted eleven minutes into the second set during “Prince Caspian,” due to the approach of potentially severe thunderstorms. The venue was immediately evacuated, and soon thereafter it was announced the show was cancelled.
The upwards of 30,000 attendees exited the venue as swiftly and safely as the venue’s island logistics allowed. Fans were chill – to everyone that was a part of not making headlines, great job! On the level-headed end of the spectrum, fans acknowledged that while it was obviously a bummer, shit happens. Lightning strikes are powerful, majestic, yet often deadly events. Trey did in fact famously take a more carefree approach when on 7/22/93 in Stowe, VT, in response to the staff talking about canceling the show due to the danger of electrocution during a show that took place in a total downpour, “Fuck that. Put the plug up my ass and count out Llama!” In this spot, however, public safety and a sober assessment of very real risk rightly won the day.
Conversely, other comments reflected a more negative tone, offering an armchair hybrid meteorologist / concert promoting / FEMA analysis, likely derived from very little experience in any of those areas. The band was slow to respond with official information, and fans – some with legitimate gripes, others playing the role of the entitled, whiny child – filled that void, quickly and loudly.
Reasonable questions can and have been asked: if your venue is such that a severe thunderstorm is going to dead-stop your gig, is that venue the best option? Severe thunderstorms in Chicago in the summer are not at all unusual events. Is Northerly Island, with no permanent structures available to provide for fan safety, suitable for mass gatherings of this type? That answer is far above my volunteer pay-grade, but the question is reasonable. Whatever the case, given the circumstances that were in place and not the circumstances some may have wished to be in place, the cancellation was the prudent call for the safety of everyone involved. The people who manage, promote and staff Phish shows are as good at what they do as anyone in the music business. Nobody wants to call off a gig. Nobody. The only thing worse than calling off a gig is not calling it off, and anyone – band, crew, staff, fans – walking away from an event that is about joy and happiness injured, or worse.
When Phish did speak up Saturday afternoon, they did so with force, unleashing an immediate wave of joy among fans across Chicagoland, and those observing from afar. How we have your back, by Phish: a three-set show Saturday with an earlier start and extended curfew; partial refunds to Friday ticket holders; and a coupon for a later webcast from LivePhish for those on couch tour. Not a lot of complaining was heard after that... and for good reason.
Expectations can be powerful determinants in the experience of any individual, in music, in love, in life. Expectations in the fan community ran from giddy optimism to irrational exuberance. The mutual love affair between Phish and their fans is dedicated, long-term and stable. In any long-term relationship, shit happens – we have ups, we have downs; we grow, we change. But what’s the best thing about the “down” times in any good relationship? Make-up sex, in this case of the musical variety. Yesterday is over, all we have and all that is real is the present moment. So, let’s get it on!
The earlier start time was announced as 7pm SHARP local time and the band came on stage at 7:15, close enough for rock. “Prince Caspian” started where Friday’s show left off – though the song was restarted from the beginning – offering only the third-ever “Caspian” show opener (12/2/95 and 12/30/95). This was a happy accident as absent the pressure of a more traditional late-show slot, this relaxed and comfortable version seems to work well. Then another wrinkle in the setlist was applied with a rare first-set “Twist” (last first set “Twist” 2/18/03, Denver), the earliest in a show “Twist” has ever been performed. “Twist” always hints of “Oye Coma Va” but this version featured a full-on tease. The first “Ha Ha Ha” of 2013 (6/20/12 Portsmouth, 41 shows) adds a little variety, but more importantly sets up the joke... “Ha Ha Ha” > “Possum.” Joke’s on us!
The rest of the first set is enjoyable enough, and well within the mean for first sets performed on the current tour. Which is one way to say that in a tour that has contained an embarrassment of musical riches, with notable exceptions – SPAC2 “Melt”, SPAC3, and MPP2 – those gems trend strongly to take place in the second set. “Cities” titillates but isn’t allowed to roam free, Page takes center stage for "Lawn Boy,” then “I Didn’t Know” makes its first 2013 appearance. “Rift” was a battle for Trey, and then the ever-popular “Destiny Unbound” allows Mike to drive for a spell. “My Friend My, My Friend” also proved to be a challenge, so Trey upshifted the tempo for “Kill Devil Falls” and “Cavern.” “David Bowie” is absolutely the right call in a spot that may have needed a boost, and it delivers some sweet redemption. Mid-jam, Fish started quoting the XTC classic “Melt the Guns,” a song that is not known to have ever been teased, and was last performed in full on 4/29/87, a mere 1533 shows ago, well before many of the show’s attendees were born!
Second set opens a few minutes after nine local with “Back on the Train.” “BOTT” is if anything versatile – it can open a set, fill a few uneventful minutes mid-set, or explode as a jam vehicle. Placed in a big spot here, it shuffles but keeps within the song’s confines. An early set “Mike’s Song” ignited hopes for the long-sought second jam, which were ultimately dashed but not before a solid eight minutes of type-I jamming. The “meat” of the Mike’s Groove sandwich has if anything gone rogue – where “Hydrogen” or “Simple” were once virtual locks, these days it can literally be anything. “Theme from the Bottom” makes its first-ever appearance out of “Mike’s.” The early part of the song had trouble finding solid ground, but then Trey cut loose for the first time in the evening with a precise, attacking, machine-gun lead that seemed even at the moment like it might really spark the set. “Theme” was brought to a conclusion and was followed by a cool little bridge jam that would set the stage for a slick segue into “Weekapaug.” You know the band is firing on all cylinders when they get out of a song structure quickly, and they dispensed with the “‘Paug” vocals with Page taking control, as he so often has this tour, followed by some killer call-and-response runs between Mike and Trey. Then Fish adds in his shift and the race is on – even from the couch, if you aren’t burning some calories here it may be time to reconsider your approach.
“Golden Age” saw Trey humorously biff the lyrics, despite aid of the prompter, a point soon forgotten if they crush the jam... which they proceeded to do. Demonstrating not only masterful setlist construction, but creating a thematic arc with two distinct downshifts in theme and tempo in the “Golden Age” jam – from a bright, happy and upbeat start and ending with a quiet, sparse jam that set the stage for “Waves,” was simply brilliant. “Waves” itself wasn’t an all-time version but that only proves that the hybrid of “song-oriented jamming” sets really does work. Twenty minute “epic” jams are awesome and can and often do anchor your show, but they aren’t a requirement (or anything close) when creating a delightful, jam-filled set of Phish music.
Sure, they could have gone deeper into this “Waves,” but the ensuing “Piper” was in many ways the climax to this journey of reconciliation. While many fans prefer the foreplay of the slow-build “Piper” intro, the band was unable to hold back any longer. Much as with the “Weekapaug” it was time for quick business, and while the song only times out at ten minutes, this is a “lost in the moment” ecstasy that you just don’t question. This collective release saw Page on the talkbox offering a bit of Frampton-esque madness to this sonic explosion, that was then driven home by some stop-start jamming and a crunchy lock established between Mike and Fish with Trey riding the wave while leaving the whammy in the ‘off’ position. Tension... and release! A sublime “Slave” takes us into the second intermission all smiles. If perhaps the make-up sex set needed it’s own make-up sex set, this set evolved into something special and from the “Theme”-on maintained an upward-trajectory, providing great satisfaction among the wet but always thirsty audience. Sweet satisfaction.
A steady rain that persisted through the second set had ended by the 10:31 third-set start time. Maintaining the upward trajectory through a third frame is more difficult as the years pass, but Phish knows that you can’t have makeup sex without the “Meatstick.” “Birds of a Feather” shifts into a higher gear, but is grounded before real take-off. “Strange Design” offers a breather, but when that was followed by “Ocelot” you could feel a collective deflation, with not subtle flashbacks to 12/31/11’s “Third Set Alaska.” If you asked 1,000 fans to create a fantasy setlist, the number that would have contained a third-set “Ocelot” would be mighty slim. But to be fair, much like the weather, you play the hand that you are dealt, and this was harder-driving and played more to the moment when it was actually played. Best “Ocelot” Ever? :-)
But just when the set needed a boost, they went to their fastball, go-to jam vehicle of the last four years, and “Light” immediately offers renewed hope for the set. This playful jam saw Trey leading toward a “Dave’s Energy Guide” and unlike so many kinda-almost teases, this one went full band and full throttle. Fish dropped out for a delightful few moments before the jam veered off with strong hints of a segue into “Timber (Jerry)” that fell short of a tease, but were unmistakable in tempo. The outro jam was sublime and set the stage for “Harry Hood.” For this fan, any show that has a late-set “Slave” AND a late-set “Hood” = $. Page steps up again on the talkbox, and while the chorus was “loose” the jam did its job, making people happy. “Good Times Bad Times” always rocks, but both this and the last version at MPP1 were absolutely spot-on, slamming great efforts. “Shine a Light” sets the mood for the end of a great night of music where everyone got their money’s worth, and so much more.
So, thanks, Phish – band members, management, crew – as well as the local authorities, and all the fans that turned lemons of Friday into the sweetest of lemonade of Saturday. It was great for us!
"Obstacles are stepping stones, That guide us to our goals" – Anastasio, Marshall